John Simpson: British Media Is 'Grotesquely Selective' In Reporting Terror Attacks

20/11/2015 11:59 | Updated 23 March 2016

One of the UK's most respected foreign correspondents has hit out at the British media's "grotesquely selective" reporting of deaths from terror attacks around the world.

Admitting he is "depressed" over where newspapers and television are headed, John Simpson says he is disheartened at how foreign correspondents have "almost vanished" in recent years.

"You see newspapers which used to pride themselves on foreign coverage - like The Daily Telegraph - now just rewrite stories from other people," the veteran journalist says. "I absolutely despair when I see how that’s happened."

Speaking to The Huffington Post UK during the 2015 One Young World summit in Bangkok, the BBC's world affairs editor details says he finds the media is too selective on its foreign affairs reporting.

"It's grotesquely selective actually. Don't get me wrong, it's not that I think the [Paris attacks] don't matter, it matters hugely what happened in Paris. It's one of the most important things of this decade. It's just that you know, 130 people die in other countries and we shouldn't let ourselves be blinded to that simply because we're more interested in Paris."

According to Simpson, it is where people are being killed which decides the extent of coverage.

"It matters less when it happens in Lebanon because Lebanon is a country which, although is quite close, is not where most people go.

"Honestly, I spend a lot of my time reporting from Iraq and you know, once a week, there are dozens of people killed in bomb attacks and suicide attacks and so forth. And it scarcely gets a mention. And the same thing in Afghanistan.

"I can rant about this from hour to hour because it makes me so angry that we should walk into other people’s countries and completely demolish whatever system they might have had beforehand, and then after, when the pressure gets a bit too great and you walk out, we never notice again what’s happened."


John Simpson during a live report from Iraq for the BBC

Simpson says he doesn't think there should necessarily be equality between "any one thing and another", as he admits the Paris attacks was more important than the bombings in Beirut - but only in one sense.

"It's likely to have a bigger effect on Western policy than the Lebanon attacks. So only in that sense."

British media was recently criticised for not reporting on recent incidents in Beirut, although several outlets had in fact drawn attention to the events. "We just aren't so interested," the 71-year-old says simply.

"There's no doubt about it. The British media is not as interested in Lebanon, in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in Libya, as it is in other places. And I feel that’s really wrong."

As for the reasoning behind the lack of interest, geographical distance "certainly" plays a role, but according to Simpson it is because "almost no news organisation" has bureaus in Kabul, Baghdad or other Middle Eastern cities.

"Yes, there are companies which honourably report there - Reuters, the BBC - but by and large the newspapers which once reported quite heavily on Iraq and Afghanistan and other places have left. It’s partly money, it’s partly safety.

"I don’t want everything I say to be regarded as a criticism. It’s just a statement of what’s happening. But the result of that is we seem not to be so interested really in deaths in one part of the world compared to another.

"Journalism has changed out of all recognition from when I started," he continues, although he admits that was around 50 years ago.

"But it stayed the same until about 10 or 15 years ago. I suppose it's the dawn of the new century, but I'm really very kind of depressed about the way that newspapers and television has developed.

"The jobs are fewer, the pay is much much less. I'm afraid we're back to where we used to be a century or more ago, in the late Victorian or early Edwardian period, when journalists were pretty much self-financed.

"So all those courses in media studies which were producing really high qualified and able people have suddenly kind of hatched up in the sands because the money to employ them is not there any more."

Nor, according to Simpson, is the high quality reporting on government policies, which has instead been replaced with politician's slanging matches.

"It's perfectly reasonable to cover the accusations and name-calling, politics has always had that element. But the policy elements in this are what don't get reported so much now.

"If you don't do serious articles about policy, it is a bit, you know," he pauses, searching for the right word, "empty".

john simpson

The new media landscape is 'very depressing'

"I remember when I was younger the Times, Telegraph, the Guardian, all would talk about public policy a great deal. Newsnight used to be very concerned about the nature of education policy, and of things that other people tended not to be very interested in, like water supply and so forth. Now that’s all finished, you don’t get that kind of thing from the broadcasters any more than you get from the newspapers."

As for journalists trying to identify the "real" pressing issues of today, "it's a question of sorting out the chaff from the wheat".

"The chaff is all the talk about it", Simpson explains. "Social media, the chit chat that goes on.

"The wheat is a proper understanding of how things work. I'm afraid it's boring but it means plugging into the old traditional political party system."

I ask Simpson to take his journalism hat off for a moment, and tell me what his proudest moment of his career was; reporting from Belgrade during the Kosovo War, disguising himself in a burqa to enter Afghanistan in 2001, being present during the Beijing Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989?

But it's none of these.

"It would be silly not to mention the fall of the Berlin wall, and the end of apartheid in South Africa, the end of communism in Russia. These were all epoch-making things. But if you ask me what I was most proud of, I’m proudest of having done something that nobody noticed, scarcely got used by the BBC, but which was really difficult to do.

"It's nothing that anybody except me would have noticed. But there’s a town called Fallujah in Iraq which was attacked by the Americans with weapons of such deep questionability that the incidence of birth defects among children is astronomically high. Even still. And I made it there and I went and saw it and I spent only one morning there because it was so, it was really difficult. I mean, Fallujah now, it’s this death sentence to go there.

"It was hard. And the rewards weren’t very great and the BBC paid almost no attention to the story and it just got me a shoal of attacks from the US, but that was," he pauses, seemingly caught up with memories of that small town, 69km west of Baghdad. "I felt that was what I ought to be doing. Not the grand stuff, but just trying to show what was really happening.

"Of all the stuff I’ve ever done, I am proudest of that."


John Simpson is an ambassador for One Young World, a global forum for young leaders aged 18-30 which gathers youths from every nation in the world to develop solutions to some of today and tomorrow's most pressing issues.

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